Ursula Von Der Leyen, the scarily efficient and glamorous German Defence Minister, who is also incredibly mother to seven children, ticked all the required boxes for soaring rhetoric on a bilateral strategic partnership with India. Democracy, freedom, an open society, diversity and religious plurality being the ground for shared values.
Of course, she was careful to not mention the closest strategic arrangement yet between India and Germany, forged by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose whose “Indian National Army” joined the “Axis” forces in World War II. This fact is inconvenient on two counts.
First, Germany is still defensive about its authoritarian past under Hitler. Second, Netaji, whilst acceptable to the current BJP government, remains a big no- no to the Congress. He was Pandit Nehru’s rival within the Congress and had to quit. Displaying characteristic German caution, Ms. Leyen preferred to give the past a brush-over and concentrated on the future.
Today, the most visible link is the fascination of the Indian nouveau riche for high-end German cars- the Audi and its cheaper cousin the Volkswagen and the BMW stable- thereby uncharacteristically forsaking the “value for money” Japanese options. The second common link is a taste for beer though German brands remain unrepresented in the Indian beer sweep stakes which is dominated by Dutch, American, UK, Australian and home grown Indian brands.
Human Rights and Democracy go together
To a direct question from a media representative whether a dodgy human rights record for India could sour any proposed strategic partnership with Germany, Ms. Leyen was quick to brightly aver that since the two countries were democracies, safeguarding human rights was, by definition, of equal value for both. She could not have done better.
The response was in sharp contrast to the US Ambassador’s apprehension, recently voiced publicly, that freezing the activities of Ford Foundation and Greenpeace in India could chill Indo-American relations. But Ms. Leyen’s response also came as recognition of India’s long standing support for the rights of the exiled Tibetan community, resident in India. Chancellor Merkel has been an international exception in publicly snubbing China by maintaining warm relations with the Dalai Lama. PM Modi in turn has been quick to project the Indian origins of Buddhism.
Can Germany subvert NATO discipline?
For all the talk about a strategic partnership, it was not clear what the substance of this partnership could be. Germany and Japan (the defeated Axis powers of WW II) have both reaped the economic advantages of aligning with the victors and outsourcing their external protection to the US Nuclear umbrella for the last seven decades. Japan and Germany are the third and fourth largest economies, respectively, but on defense spend they rank a lowly eighth and ninth, behind the UK, France and even India (SIPRI 2015).
Is Germany seriously considering abandoning the US crutch and shouldering more of the defense burden versus Russia’s currently expansive ambitions in Europe? Would the additional fiscal burden be feasible given that the dodgy economies of Southern Europe are fast becoming Ms. Merkel’s subsidy problem?
This would be uncharacteristic for the cautious and pragmatic Ms. Merkel. Germany is increasingly dependent on natural gas imports, subsequent to it closing the nuclear power option. Russia is right next door with the largest reserves of gas and the pipeline infrastructure to supply it. It makes perfect sense for Ms. Merkel to continue to depend on the US for “protecting” Europe and avoid a direct face-off with Russia.
One lesson to learn from Germany is how aligning with a stronger partner for strategic purposes can free up public resources for development and growth. But it is unlikely that the context will ever fit the tough neighbourhood India is situated in and the compulsion of living with a “muscular” China.
Indo-German strategic partnership?
Indeed the question uppermost in Ms. Leyen’s mind was whether there was any future for an “alliance” with India, given our long standing adherence to the doctrine of non-alignment. It is unlikely that she will get a straight answer.
First, strictly defined “for-ever” alliances are now old hat. Germany, together with the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, the Nordics, Australia and New Zealand have ignored US chagrin at their participation in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank- China’s counter to the Japan dominated Asian Development Bank.
Second, the past shows that alliances do not suit India. We are too large and too poor, to hang our hat exclusively on any one peg though it is not for want of trying. India has all the characteristics to be a natural ally for the rich, democratic world. But the accident of history, or the perversity of diplomacy, has been that none of the rich, democratic countries (US, UK, EU) actually showed much interest in having an alliance with democratic India and its messy politics.
The rich, democratic world (G8) found it more convenient, during the extended “cold war years”, to team up with developing country dictators in Asia, Africa and South America in a global pact against Communism. Unfortunately, this also meant teaming up with elites and against the poor citizens of their allies in the developing world. This is what drove India into a strategic alliance with Russia in 1971 which has since lost its salience.
Make for India
Germany is today Europe’s powerhouse. India has shrugged off its mantle of lethargy. Demography is waiting to be exploited in India whilst ageing Germany needs skilled, temporary immigrants to drive their economy. This presents a huge opportunity for India’s unemployed but tech savvy youth.
Language will be a problem for Indian immigrants and this is one good reason why India should free up the language curriculum in schools and make it market oriented. Ms. Leyen is multi-lingual as must Indian kids become.
Around 12% of the German population has roots outside Germany but mostly in other European countries and Turkey. Ms. Leyen’s proposal for temporary migration, at scale, from India must be pursued.
A partnership with Germany will likely cater more to optics than substance. But the proposal to integrate the technical workforce in the two countries is a substantive addition via Indians making, for India and the world, in Germany.
A packed house turned out in the burning, mid-day heat of New Delhi to listen to Ms. Leyen and to get a glimpse of the endearing German ambassador and India buff- Michael Steiner.
Part of the curiosity was to see what the Germans had to offer in this new area of defense international co-operation. What was on offer publicly was underwhelming. Seeing and hearing the first woman Defence Minister of Germany was itself a novelty. But mostly, it was an opportunity to be with a possible future successor to Ms. Merkel once she decides Germany no longer needs her.
If this happens in 2017, PM Modi may be dealing with a powerful transatlantic woman-power tie up: Hilary Clinton in the US and Ms. Leyen in Germany – both of whom are likely to provide him stiff sartorial competition.